Pecker: Trump Asked About Playboy Playmate During White House Visit

Jeenah Moon/Getty Images
Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

Tabloid boss David Pecker took the stand at Donald Trump’s hush-money trial for a third day on Thursday, testifying about his scheme to bury a Playboy Playmate’s salacious affair story that could’ve done deep damage to the former president’s campaign.

The former president, chairman, and CEO of American Media Inc. (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, spent hours on the stand describing the inner workings of the so-called catch-and-kill method of paying for the rights to a story with no intention of it ever seeing the light of day, saying his intention was to help protect Trump’s chances of winning the White House—at the behest of the candidate himself.

Pecker said he did it despite having deep concerns about the legality of the practice with regard to campaign finance laws, and was not convinced Trump would ever pay him back for the secret payments. However, he testified, he did it to protect “the boss,” and said Trump, even after becoming president, continued to appreciatively reference the levers Pecker had covertly pulled to help him get there.

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass began questioning on Thursday by having Pecker walk the jury through the evolution of a $150,000 payment that AMI made to Playmate Karen McDougal for the exclusive rights to her life story.

Pecker said former Enquirer Editor-in-Chief Dylan Howard approached him in June 2016 and said a source had called to say McDougal was trying to sell a story about a year-long “romantic” relationship she’d had with Trump.

“He said she was a 12 out of 10,” Pecker said Howard told him.

Pecker said McDougal told Howard she “didn’t want to be the next Monica Lewinsky,” and was willing to negotiate a deal to suppress the information she was peddling. The cost for McDougal’s “lifetime rights” was $150,000, according to Pecker. She also “wanted to write for the celebrity magazines, she wanted to be on the cover on some of the health-and-fitness titles... and she wanted to be an anchor for the red carpet events with Radar magazine.”

At around the same time, Pecker said, Trump called him and asked about “a Mexican group” he said he heard was looking to buy McDougal’s story for $8 million. Pecker told Trump that he knew of no media outlet in Mexico soliciting McDougal for her sordid tale, but that he urged Trump to buy the rights to her story because “I believed [it] was true. It would have been very embarrassing to himself and also to his campaign.”

“He said he doesn’t buy stories because ‘it always gets out,’” Pecker testified. “He was going to speak to Michael [Cohen] and that [Trump] would be calling me back.”

When Cohen later phoned Pecker, he told him to buy McDougal’s story and that “the boss would take care of it.” This meant, according to Pecker, that “I would be reimbursed” by either the Trump Organization or by Trump personally, whom Cohen referred to as “the boss.”

“By purchasing her life rights, you didn’t have any obligation to print them?” Steinglass asked.

“No, we did not,” Pecker replied.

“Did you have any intention of printing them?”

“No, we did not.”

Still, Pecker said he was concerned he wouldn’t get paid back because he knew Cohen “didn’t have any authorization to disperse any funds from the Trump Organization. Any time we even went out for lunch, I was paying for it.”

Pecker said he had become “concerned” about the possible legal issues that could result from buying and spiking a story to sway a political campaign, recounting a tale about having previously done so for Arnold Schwarzenegger when he ran for governor of California in the mid-2000s. But after consulting with a campaign attorney who approved the McDougal contract in August 2016, Pecker told Cohen that everything was a go.

He said he included language in the contract about McDougal’s “writing” duties—which Pecker said would actually be ghostwritten by paid freelancers—to “substantiate” the agreement, and “validate” the $150,000 payment he would be making.

Was this, in reality, a sleight-of-hand meant “to disguise the true nature of this contract?” Steinglass asked.

“Yes,” Pecker said with a sigh. “Yes, it was.”

The contract also included a line, which Steinglass highlighted in court, that AMI would own the rights to her overall life story, including “any romantic personal and/or physical relationship McDougal has ever had with any then-married man.”

And who did the “then-married man” refer to?

“Donald Trump,” Pecker replied.

In September 2016, Pecker testified, Cohen suddenly told Trump wanted all of the boxes of source material the Enquirer had amassed on McDougal, which was in storage, and held the damaging details of her stories. Trump was worried that if Pecker “got hit by a bus,” or if the company was sold, he wanted to ensure no one else would be able to obtain the information. Cohen was insistent that Pecker get the boxes to Trump as soon as possible, contacting him again and again during the month, pressing him on the issue.

Trump wanted Pecker and AMI to transfer the McDougall life rights to him, Pecker said. He explained that he believed McDougal’s “writing” duties were worth $25,000, and thus offered to knock Trump’s reimbursement down to $125,000.

“Michael Cohen wanted the contract done yesterday, and this was going on toward the end of September [2016],” Pecker said, explaing that he wanted to get paid back before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal quarter. He said an invoice was prepared and funneled through AMI human resources executive Daniel Rotstein because money was flowing between AMI and the Trump Organization would “raise a lot of questions.”

Pecker said he later spoke to AMI’s legal counsel about the updated plan, and subsequently decided he no longer wanted to be paid back. He was prevented from explaining what the lawyer’s advice was, by an objection from the defense, but he had previously mentioned his fear of being exposed to legal jeopardy.

“I called Michael Cohen and I said to him the agreement was off, I’m not going forward, it is a bad idea, and I want you to rip up the agreement,” Pecker testified. “He was very, very angry, very upset, screaming, basically at me, and I said, I’m not going forward with this agreement. Rip it up. And Michael Cohen said, ‘The boss is going to be very angry at you.’ And I said, I’m sorry, I’m not going forward. The deal is off. He said, ‘I can’t believe it, I’m a lawyer, I’m your friend.’ … And he said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’”

Did AMI ever get reimbursed for McDougal’s story? Steinglass asked.

“No,” Pecker responded. “We never did.”

Ultimately, Pecker said, “someone” on the AMI staff leaked details of the McDougal scheme to the Wall Street Journal, which published a story about it on Nov. 4, 2016—four days before the election. Trump was “very agitated” about it, and demanded to know how it happened. Pecker quickly released a statement denying that AMI had ever made payments, of any kind, to kill damaging stories about Trump.

“Was that the truth?” Steinglass asked.

“No, it was not,” Pecker replied.

When Steinglass asked why he had lied, Pecker said, “I wanted to protect my company, I wanted to protect myself, and I also wanted to protect Donald Trump.”

In the aftermath, AMI decided to amend the contract with McDougal to allow her to speak to the media, following a phone call from a lawyer she had hired, Pecker said. AMI hired her a press agent so Pecker could maintain control over the narrative moving forward.

Cohen was adamant that Pecker not go forward with the amended deal, calling it “a very bad idea,” and saying Trump would be extremely angry if he did it, according to Pecker.

Pecker said he ignored Cohen’s advice and gave McDougal back her life rights to avoid extended litigation.

After Trump won the election, Pecker said the president-elect said to him, “‘I want to thank you for the McDougal situation, and I also want to thank you for the doorman situation’ … He said the stories could [have been] very embarrassing,” adding that by this he meant Trump, Trump’s family, and Trump’s campaign.

He also told the jury that Trump once thanked him for helping suppress bad stories while FBI director James Comey was present.

Shortly before Trump was inaugurated, he visited Trump at Trump Tower, where the former president asked, “How’s our girl,” Pecker said. Trump told him that he would send him an invite to the inauguration, and Pecker asked how the two would be able to keep in touch. Trump said he would be getting get a new cellphone number that he would give him, but, Pecker said, the promised exchange “never transpired.” Pecker said he never went to the inauguration because his wife “didn’t care to attend,” and he simply decided to skip it.

Pecker said he later visited Trump at the White House and was taken to the Oval Office, where he was “able to take a photo with Mr. Trump.”

“As we walked down to [the Rose Garden], Mr. Trump asked me, ‘How is Karen doing?’” Pecker recalled. “I said, ‘She’s good, everything’s quiet.’”

But McDougal was interviewed on CNN in 2018 by Anderson Cooper, and, Pecker testified, Trump was “very upset” with him.

As Trump settled into the presidency, Cohen began to get even cockier, according to Pecker. In 2021, Pecker said he got a letter from the FEC about possible campaign violations, and told Cohen that he was “very worried” about what might happen to him.

Pecker said Cohen reassured him, “What are you worried for? The attorney general is Jeff Sessions, Trump’s got him in his pocket.”

Pecker said on the stand that he later inked a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors over the allegations, in exchange for his cooperation in the case. Michael Cohen, on the other hand, was sentenced to three years in prison.

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